Two hundred bucks was all it took. Even then it wasn’t much but it was all The Age would pay to have him swim the 25 miles from Port Arlington to Frankston, Port Phillip Bay, Melbourne. It was a race the Melbourne paper had sponsored and for which they were struggling to get a field. It was a small fee indeed, agreed one night on the drink with his journalist mates, that started a middle-aged obsession for the remainder of Des Renfords’ life.
Having swum for 15 hours he was taken from the water with just 2 miles to go. Linda McGill won the race in 12 hours 54 minutes and only one of the other 8 starters finished. While recovering in hospital he decided that with a little training he might go alright at this and he’d be the first Australian male to swim the English Channel which Linda had swum three years earlier. To his great disappointment that prize eluded him too when John Koorey made it across before him in 1969.
There was only one thing for it, he would swim to France and back for the first double crossing of the English Channel by an Australian. On 9 August 1970 the first leg of his debut double-crossing attempt became Australia's third English Channel solo crossing in 13 hours 9 minutes. The second leg was aborted after more than 24 hours in the water when Des swam into his pilot boat and dislocated his shoulder. He tried 6 times in all to make a double, but that wasn’t to be.
There were other great challenges and rivalries that emerged for the intrepid butcher, barman, and SP bookmaker from Maroubra. He beat Linda McGill in the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ race across Moreton Bay, Brisbane. He duelled with England's Kevin Murphy in a three-race series, that spanned the world - the first 10-mile race in Sydney Harbour won by the Englishman, the second across the English Channel won by Des on what was his 11th crossing, and the third was 21 miles along Loch Ness, Scotland which they both failed to complete. Murphy described the series as ‘an honourable draw’.
Renford’s defining rivalry must however have been that with Michael Read of England for title, ‘King of the Channel’ awarded to the man with the most solo crossings. Des took the crown with his 8th crossing in 1975 and held it until 1979 when Read swam a colossal six crossings in a season to take his tally to 17 and depose Des. Renford wanted his title back. That happened with his 19th and last crossing in 1980. He was the King again, but ever so briefly. Read had overthrown him one last time by the end of the season.
Des Renford’s great mate and protégé, Cyril Baldock, our fifth channel swimmer, recalls Des plan to return triumphantly to England to claim his 20th crossing and nab the crown back from Mike Read but while training at Coogee for that swim he suffered a heart attack and retired from marathon swimming. He was 58.
In the end it took 5 heart attacks to take the life of this big, tough man who appropriately was born on the anniversary of the first solo crossing of the English Channel by Capt. William Webb on 25 August 1875 and on the actual day in 1927 when the Channel Swimming Association was formed. He died on 30 December 1999 after having had a heart attack the day before during his daily swim at Heffron Park Olympic Pool, Maroubra, later to be renamed in his honour.
In a life spent in the quest of many firsts, he was also the first to tell that joke. He routinely opened his after-dinner speeches with the line – ‘Hello my name is Des Renford and I’ve swum the English Channel 19 times. I would have done it 20 times, but I found out there was a ferry’.